The decisive debate?

Today, some 43 days before the US presidential election it is virtually impossible to say who will win the White House.

The background and reasons for this unseen situation will be covered during the coming weeks by Miltton, but first to a more pressing matter – the first TV debate today, September 26th, on CNN. The debate may, according to numerous commentators, be decisive in the race for the White House. Matt Rhodes, the former head of the 2012 Romney campaign, told us that while it is impossible to predict the outcome now, come Tuesday morning the situation might look very different.

This will be the most-watched debate in American history, overshadowing classic battles like the Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960 – and most commentators agree that the first debate usually is the decisive one. In our meetings with delegation heads, campaign strategists and seasoned foreign policy experts, we asked the same question: what will be the decisive elements of the first debate? Here is an aggregated view on what to keep an eye on during tonight´s debate.

Strangely enough, the expectations for Donald Trump are so low, that as long as he does not make a fool out of himself, he will come out of the debate as an ironic sort-of-winner. First, he will have to avoid “Trump moments” such as lies, false facts and incorrect statements. Second, he needs to be more presidential. In other words his language, posture, temperament and behavior will have to prove to people and to the world that he has the characteristics needed for the most demanding job in the world. Third, he needs to keep his aggressive style, but in a more balanced way. He will continue to attack Secretary Clinton, especially her position among the Washington elite, but he should do it very carefully and not in the belligerent style he uses when they are not face to face. And finally, he will need to protect himself from himself. The debate is an extremely pressurized situation building up an unimaginable amount of stress. There are no promoters or aids, just prepped candidates and tens of millions of voters watching. In a stressful situation like that you tend to fall back on your personality and habits. And that increases the risk for Trump moments.

Secretary Clinton is the most qualified candidate in history. Out of all political formats, debate is where she is at her strongest. She often does poorly in interviews, face-to-face encounters and town hall meetings, but in a debate she is best able to display her strongest attributes; competence and experience. Tonight, she will first have to reinforce the belief that she is the best candidate for the job, without being arrogant or elitist. Second, she will need to be very firm and stand up to Trump. She cannot, under any circumstance, let Trump dominate or bully her. She will need to be strong, assertive and calm. And third, just like Trump has his “moments”, so does Secretary Clinton. Only hers are very different. She cannot make statements that display her elitism and distance from American reality.

Having said all this, there is also the possibility that none of this matters. The reasons for Mr. Trump’s success (which we will come back to in later blog posts) are rooted so deep in the American sentiment, that no matter what is said in the debates to come, surprisingly many might tick the Trump box on November 8th.

A Miltton-Microsoft delegation spent a week in Washington to figure out what is going on in the US Presidential and Congressional elections. We went to get inspired and informed, and hopefully to get some answers to what the outcome will be. And we got our money’s worth of everything, except for the latter.

This post is the first in a series of blog posts digging into different angles of the 2016 US Presidential elections. We will cover a new topic each week until the election day.


Fredrik Heinonen
Deputy MD